EDITORIAL: We need consistency over age of maturity

Color us jaded, but we’re under no illusions that many Democrats want to do America’s young people any favors by lowering the voting age to 16. They are counting on the fact that younger people tend to support liberal policies and candidates, and thus likely would strengthen their party.

Not that it’s a bad idea. School projects such as Kids Voting USA, which has been used in Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere, have proven successful even in elementary schools. In fact, if high school social studies classes address elections, issues and candidates, the students, regardless of age, likely would cast better-informed ballots than older voters whose votes are based on little more than party affiliation, incumbency, a catchy name who whoever threw the best campaign pachanga.

However, the debate on whether 16-year-olds can be trusted to make decisions as important as voting raises a bigger issue: At what age should we consider people adults, and shouldn’t the answer be consistent?

As many people have pointed out in these kinds of debates, we allow people to enlist in our armed forces at age 18, 17 with parental consent, but we don’t allow them to buy tobacco or alcohol until they’re 21.

That was one of the primary arguments surrounding the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971: A person old enough to fight and die in U.S. military actions should be old enough to help decide the issues and elect the people who order those actions and send them into combat.

But the issue of maturity goes well beyond voting and military service. Some states allow people to marry at 17, others at 16. Many business contracts can be rescinded if one of the parties involved is younger than 18.

But when it comes to dealing out punishment, the age of maturity often drops significantly. Courts have certified teenagers as young as 14 as adults to be tried — and punished — for various crimes. Some teens have been put in prison for life before they were even old enough to get a driver’s license.

A person mature enough to be entrusted with helping us decide our nation’s future at the ballot box should also be considered old enough to buy a beer. A person too young to decide a tax referendum should also be considered too young to fully understand the weight, and consequences, of committing felony crimes.

If Congress is going to debate the age at which rights are recognized and privileges are granted, then they should take the opportunity to bring some consistency to the matter of legal maturity. They would do a great service to our youngest Americans — and to the nation as a whole — if they discuss the issue with experts on human development, debate the issue fully, and determine which age Americans should be considered mature. Then that age — whether it be 16, 18, 21 or some other age — should be applied to all legal matters wherever practicable.

Maintaining inconsistent and obviously arbitrary standards makes little legal sense, and the issue begs for a reasonable resolution.